Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol was elected president of South Korea on Wednesday, March 9, after a close race with candidate Lee Jae-Myung from the ruling party. However, in terms of China, his administration promises no soft tone.
Heralding a tougher stance with North Korea, Yoon advocates more security cooperation with the US. He called for additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD anti-missile system) deployments, a move that guarantees China’s discontent.
In January, he said, “South Korea and the United States share an alliance forged in blood as we have fought together to protect freedom against the tyranny of communism.”
South Korea’s welcoming of the US’s THAAD has previously led to a year-long hiatus between Beijing and Seoul from 2016 to 2017. Chinese retaliation took a toll on South Korea’s tourist, cosmetics, and entertainment industries.
Yoon turned down the “three nos,” an appeasement agreement South Korea made with China in late 2017. The three nos required South Korea to abandon additional THAAD deployments, not participate in a US missile defense network, or establish a trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan.
In an article on Foreign Affairs last month, Yoon wrote, “Relations should be grounded in respect for each other’s interests and policy positions. Just as South Korea does not oppose China’s Belt and Road Initiative and works with Beijing in trade and commerce, China for its part should accept, rather than oppose, South Korea’s cooperative system with its allies.”
China is South Korea’s leading trading partner. Yoon does not seek to change this relationship, yet he said, “Despite these economic ties, the countries differ strongly on security concerns, especially when it comes to North Korea.”
The new South Korean president-elect was also looking to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and the Five Eyes Intelligence Sharing Program guaranteed to raise further dissatisfaction from China.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi slammed Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy and regional coalitions, including the Quad, as an attempt to restrict Beijing by forming an “Indo-Pacific Nato.”